Trial-bar critic D'Amato signs on with trial lawyers

Simmons Cooper, among the nation’s biggest asbestos-plaintiff law firms and Democratic donors, has made a strange new bedfellow in Alfonse D’Amato, the former GOP senator and trial-bar critic turned superlobbyist.

Simmons Cooper, among the nation’s biggest asbestos-plaintiff law firms and Democratic donors, has made a strange new bedfellow in Alfonse D’Amato, the former GOP senator and trial-bar critic turned superlobbyist.

Trial lawyers have been perennial targets for Republicans since D’Amato came to the Senate in 1980, criticized for clogging the judicial system and swarming businesses with needless litigation. Republicans hailed the class-action and bankruptcy bills passed early last year as a victory over the trial-bar lobby, and they have used a similar strategy for the asbestos trust-fund bill coming to the Senate floor next week.

But the $140 billion trust fund, shepherded by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), is losing momentum and K Street support at a critical moment. And for Jeff Cooper, an asbestos-injury specialist and former Democratic congressional candidate, adding D’Amato to his firm’s team helped dispel the Republican myth that all trial lawyers are evil.

“We have become the boogeymen of Republican politics,” Cooper said. “It’s sort of like the red scare of 50 years ago, where if you’re associated with a trial lawyer you’re sort of the devil.”

D’Amato and his son Chris have lobbied for Simmons Cooper since September, working exclusively on the asbestos trust-fund bill and tort reform. The firm also retains WolfBlock Government Relations and the Washington Group, led by another former New York Republican lawmaker, ex-Rep. Susan Molinari.

Nonetheless, D’Amato is an unlikely ally for Simmons Cooper as its lawyers, 28 of whom belong to the influential American Trial Lawyers Association (ATLA), seek to derail the asbestos trust fund and preserve victims’ right to sue in court after exposure to the deadly substance.

ATLA backed only three Senate challengers in the 1998 election. One of them, then-Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), beat D’Amato and took his job.

“Anybody who’s ever talked to Al D’Amato knows he doesn’t temper his beliefs or comments,” Cooper said. “He’s been very open with me about his feelings about the trial bar and how he thinks there have been certain problems in the judicial system. But he believes, along with a number of conservative Republicans, that the asbestos bill is a disaster and a humungous government giveaway.”

Chris D’Amato did not return requests for comment for this story. But a Democratic lobbyist who also works with Simmons Cooper was not surprised at the firm’s canny embrace of the former senator, who showed signs of moderation and in 2004 often suggested that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) replace Vice President Cheney on the Republican ticket.

“It was not in the traditional sense that [Simmons Cooper] came to Washington, saying, ‘We’re trial lawyers; we want to keep this present system.’ Nothing could be further from the truth,” the Democrat said.

Instead, the lobbyist added, Cooper wanted to lobby for the alternative solution of asbestos registries, which would help monitor asbestos victims who have yet to show signs of developing fatal lung disease and prevent those victims from pursuing lawsuits until an illness actually manifests.

Despite their hiring of D’Amato, Cooper and his partner John Simmons, who briefly sought the 2004 Democratic Senate nomination that went to current Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), have come under fire recently for their links to Democrats. Simmons Cooper is among the Democratic Party’s top 10 contributors for both the 2004 and 2006 election cycles, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, sending more than $700,000 to Democratic committees and candidates.

Two local newspapers in Massachusetts have criticized Simmons Cooper for an August fundraiser that benefited Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the asbestos bill. Held at Cooper’s home, the event netted Meehan’s campaign $38,000, making Simmons Cooper his leading contributor this cycle.

Both Cooper’s and Meehan’s offices pointed out that House Democrats have long been expected to mount unified opposition to the asbestos trust fund, and both said the fundraiser came as a result of Cooper and Meehan’s personal friendship.

“My fundraising has been primarily Democratic, but I’d also be happy to raise money for a number of Republican members,” Cooper said. “Quite frankly, I’ve never gotten the chance to get to know them very well.”

The Illinois Civil Justice League, which helped direct public attention to the lawsuit-laden court system in Madison County, Ill., also blasted Simmons Cooper for its ties to Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), a vocal critic of the asbestos trust fund. Since Madison County’s judicial climate became less plaintiff-friendly, Simmons Cooper has moved much of its asbestos practice to Delaware, forming a strategic partnership with a local law firm where Biden’s son Beau is a named partner.

“It’s unthinkable that Simmons Cooper could be targeting the business-friendly state of Delaware,” Allen Adomite, the Justice League’s government-relations director, wrote in a July editorial.

Cooper said Beau Biden does not work on the firm’s asbestos cases, to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest with his father’s Capitol Hill work. He shrugged off the scrutiny of the firm’s partisan maneuvering.

“I don’t really understand the lobbying game anyway,” he said. “D.C. is a place you have to live there to really understand.”